Strictest limits on lead urged

EPA due to update 30-year-old standard by September 15

June 13, 2008|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

A Bush administration proposal to tighten national air pollution standards for lead might not go far enough to protect the public from the metal's toxic effects, environmental and health experts told a government panel in Baltimore yesterday.

The Environmental Protection Agency's hearing to gather comments on lead in the air drew a sparse turnout, but several of those who attended said the agency should adopt the strictest standards possible for acceptable levels of lead. The EPA is due to update the standards by Sept. 15.

"We're pleased the EPA is tightening the standards, but they should be set at the higher level," said Gary Ewart, director of government relations for the American Thoracic Society, a group of 18,000 physicians who specialize in critical care and lung ailments.

The current lead standard, set in 1978, allows 1.5 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air. Measurements are based on three-month averages of lead levels, recorded at monitoring stations across the country.

The EPA is proposing a new standard that would fall between 0.10 micrograms and 0.30 micrograms per cubic meter. Violations would still be averaged over three-month periods. Exact microgram levels will be determined before the new rule is published Sept. 15, EPA officials said.

The Thoracic Society - along with other health and environmental groups - is recommending that the EPA set a 0.2-microgram limit and base violations on monthly averages. A shorter period for averaging violations would catch more violators, they say.

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit, told the EPA panel yesterday that the standard should be set below 0.10 micrograms. "Lead is a very toxic pollutant that steals IQ points from children," he said.

Lead has been largely eradicated from house paints and tailpipes but is still emitted by power plants, smelting operations, cement plants and small aircraft, experts say.

Breathing and ingesting lead can cause cognitive and behavioral problems in children and is linked to increased risks of cardiovascular disease, kidney failure and cognitive problems in adults, experts say.

"The science has progressed to where we know more about the harms from lead, and we need tighter standards," Avinash Karr, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a telephone interview.

Critics note that the current standard is so lax that only one community in the nation - Herculaneum, Mo., home to a large lead smelter - violates it.

If the 0.10-microgram standard is enacted by Sept. 15, as many as 22 counties nationwide could be violating Clean Air standards for lead, EPA officials said. Violators are subject to long-term state monitoring and cleanup efforts.

None of the counties expected to violate the tougher standard is in Maryland, according to EPA projections. But 80 facilities in Maryland pump a total of 18 tons of lead into the air each year, according to the NRDC.

"The thing about lead is, it's persistent. It doesn't go away. It just stays there," Karr said.

If the EPA adopts a 0.3-microgram standard, it will fall short of the 0.2-microgram recommendations made by the agency's scientific advisers, Karr said.

"We basically want the EPA to follow the science," he said.

The EPA was forced to review its lead air pollution standards by a court order resulting from a suit by a Missouri environmental group. The agency held public hearings yesterday in Baltimore and St. Louis as a part of that review process.

"There had to be legal action to force the EPA to do what they were supposed to do," Ewart said.

The EPA is scheduled to adopt new standards Sept. 15. It will accept written comments until July 21.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

Information: www.epa.gov/air/lead/

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